Chapter 19: Deal with a Ghoul
Maura’s reaction was instantaneous. Carina’s hands clenched the mask in her lap as an unfamiliar memory flickered behind her eyes.
The pristine cold walls of the royal palace closed in around her. The weight of the dead knight collapsed in her lap as Maura scrambled back away from Ghost, his horrid blue mask and the deadly blade he held that glimmered unnaturally beneath the decorative wall lanterns.
“P-please—” Maura whimpered, unable to pull her foot, hooked beneath the knight’s heavy limbs, free.
The soulless black eyes of his mask barely regarded her before the assassin stepped past corpse and maid and sprinted after the fleeing figure of Crown Princess Eleanora.
Carina felt Maura’s fear like a blast of cold air across her entire body. Terror flooded her lungs and she nearly choked on it, as her heart flickered unsteadily. If this was a warning from the afterlife, then it had come a little too late. Ghost barreled towards her like an avenging demon, and Carina had nowhere to run.
“Easy,” Alex stepped between them and grabbed the assassin’s shoulder, holding him firm.
Carina blinked, unable to determine how he had come across the bar so quickly.
“Out of my way, old man!” Ghost snapped.
“Not until you calm down.” It was not a request. As the other thugs around the room stepped closer, Carina realized that they weren’t here for her, but the rogue assassin among them.
“I just want answers!”
“She can’t answer you if she’s dead.”
“Why are you protecting her?”
“What? You want to start killing children now?” There was a hint of danger in Alex’s tone that even Ghost couldn’t ignore.
“Fine. I won’t kill her. Happy?”
“And you’ll play nice,” Alex pressured.
“If you don’t take your hand off of me right now—” Ghost reached for his sword.
The click of a pistol silenced the room, and the thugs froze with their blades half drawn. Alex held a pistol against Ghost’s temple and shook his head.
“I told you before, swords and daggers are for amateurs. Now drop them on the floor.”
For a long vexatious moment, Ghost didn’t move.
“Please,” Carina interjected into the tense silence. “I’m more than happy to answer your questions. I came prepared to do so if necessary.” Miraculously her voice remained calm and steady despite the waves of hostility that rolled in her direction.
“See, no need for violence,” Alex said as he tapped his gun against Ghost’s mask. “Unless you don’t trust this old man anymore.”
Ghost’s tense shoulders slumped in defeat. He slammed the hilt of his sword back into its sheath, then unbuckled both sword belts and dropped them to the floor.
“Dagger,” Alex reminded him with a coy smile.
Ghost swiped the pistol away with a grunt of annoyance and flicked his wrist. A familiar long, thin blade appeared in his fingers as if by magic. He dropped the dagger. It pierced the wooden floorboards with a soft thud and quivered, upright in the floor.
“Satisfied?” Ghost growled.
Alex rested the pistol on his shoulders and addressed the thugs at the table. “We’re good here,” he said.
The thugs sheathed their blades and then headed for the exit, though more than a few cast suspicious glances at Ghost on their way out.
“Well then,” Alex said as he walked around the bar. “Drinks?”
“Give me the Gutter Rat,” Ghost replied as he moved forward cautiously and took a seat two stools down from Maura.
Alex made a face but poured the requested drink and set it before the assassin.
“Maura, this is Ghost. Ghost, this is Maura, otherwise known as Lady Aconitum,” he supplied as if casually introducing two strangers at the bar.
“Family name?” Ghost asked as he eyed his drink.
“None,” Alex and Maura answered.
“So, you’re a half-blood.” Ghost lifted his mask just enough to expose warm caramel skin, a sharp scruffy chin, and a firm jawline. He raised the glass to his lips and downed the drink in three large gulps. “Hell’s Teeth, that’s good.” He smacked his lips and spun the glass across the bar to Alex. “Another.”
The label he so casually used was yet another double standard of this world—the difference between a bastard and a half-blood.
A man could have children outside of marriage and bestow his name to them by choice. They might be bastards, but if the lord of the estate welcomed them, they were of little difference to the rest of his children. They could even inherit his estate if they were lucky enough to be born a male.
But if a woman strayed from her marriage bed and produced a child, they were called half-bloods and received no surname. After all, what sort of man would willingly give his family name to the product of his wife’s betrayal.
Alex plucked up Ghost’s glass and tucked it behind the bar. “Save the heavy drinking for later. Shall we begin?”
Ghost grunted and pulled down his mask. Carina nodded.
“I’ll start then,” Ghost said as he turned towards her. “The North Star, have you seen it?”
“No,” Carina answered firmly.
‘Not in this life anyway.’
Ghost’s fingers drummed the bar slowly as he continued. “Then why did you send me that drawing?”
“Because I knew it would mean something to you.”
His gloved hand curled into a fist. “Then, you know who I am?”
“I know who you used to be,” Carina replied. She tried facing him directly, but every time she did, the same cold fear washed over her. She fixed her eyes on his shoulder instead.
Alex’s gaze danced between them as Ghost remained silent for a long moment.
“Why did you seek me out? What do you want?” Ghost finally asked.
“A promise that if the need should arise, your blades will take the life of my enemy.”
This time Ghost glanced at Alex, and an unspoken question passed between them.
“You mean—” Ghost turned back to her, “—you want me to kill Prince Nicholas?”
” I want you to help me keep Crown Princess Eleanora safe,” Carina explained.
“Elly?” As soon as the name slipped past his lips, Ghost stiffened.
Alex scoffed and folded his arms. “Why would the Crown Princess be in danger?”
“Surely someone, as connected as you are, could figure that out, Master of the Fox Den,” Carina replied skeptically.
Now it was Ghost’s turn to snort in amusement. “You’re referring to the Dowager?”
“Perhaps,” Carina answered with a shrug.
“I wouldn’t mind killing that old bag,” Ghost muttered. “But why did you mention Nicholas the last time you were here? Was that to get my attention too?”
Carina weighed her words carefully. Maura’s past and future wasn’t something she could easily explain. Even if it contained all the answers Ghost was looking for—would he believe her? “Prince Nicholas has other motives which might lead him to act against his Crown Princess in the future.”
“You’re referring to the woman he keeps outside the palace?” Ghost replied. “Why not just ask me to kill her?”
“Would you?” Carina asked.
‘Could it really be that easy? Remove the mistress and save Eleanora and Nicholas’ marriage?’
It was an idea Carina had considered with no success. She had no idea where Nicholas had hidden his mistress, only that she would be brought into the palace later as a consort when she became pregnant before Eleanora.
The question hung heavily in the silence between them. Ghost turned his gaze away. “And if Nicholas doesn’t pose a threat?”
“Then he is not my enemy, and he need not die. Not at your hand anyway.”
Ghost turned towards her sharply, the mask’s black eyes peered into her own as if they would pry her secrets from her soul.
“Any more questions?” Carina asked, conscious of the lengthening shadows of the candles on the bar. The coach driver was probably getting worried.
“Yeah,” Ghost muttered. “Why?”
“Why?” Carina echoed, confused.
“Why are you going to such lengths to protect Eleanora? How would a half-blood like you even get the chance to meet her? Why do you have that drawing? The depiction is too accurate to be just a guess. And if you didn’t draw it, who did? Also, why call yourself Lady Aconitum? Is that some suicidal attempt to grab the attention of the royal family? And finally, why ask me of all people to kill my brother?”
“That—” Carina sucked in a slow breath and exhaled. “Do you know any other assassin as familiar with the secret passages of the royal palace, who would take such a risk to protect a princess from Vetrayna?”
Ghost remained silent as he glanced towards Alex. This time, the Master of the Fox Den only stared back. Carina held her breath and waited.
“And my brother?”
“If it came down to it, and you had to choose who would you save? Nicholas or Eleanora?” Carina replied bluntly.
There was no need to spell it out. Everything that Ghost had lost, Nicholas had gained, including Eleanora, who had initially been pledged to Tristan. Even after Lafeara and the royal family believed him dead, Tristan had returned for Eleanora in Maura’s last life.
Perhaps she was betting heavily on what little she had gleaned from Maura’s memories—but to change her future, Eleanora had to live.
“Fine. I have no objections,” Ghost muttered as he adjusted the cuff of his glove. “But if Eleanora should fall into danger, how would you of all people know about it?”
“Because in a few days, I will be right at her side,” Carina answered confidently. “As her lady-in-waiting.”